How do I research someone I know little about?

How do I do genealogical research about someone I know little about

After working with a variety of beginners, I have encountered several questions. The most common question begins this way…

“I want to learn more about my great-grandmother, but I don’t know much about her. How do I begin?”

Today I will walk you through the beginning steps I take to discover someone’s family history. Then I will follow up with a few other posts, so stay tuned!

To start, I prefer to start folks on because it’s free; you gotta love that. Secondly, many other websites are distracting with instant trees and multiple variations of the same person on a variety of trees. I take a sourced based approach to building my tree, so that’s why I am encouraging using Family Search.

Before I start building the tree, I need to identify what I already know.  Let’s say I know these bare bones facts:
Zula J Offord
born 1869
died 1929, in Ohio, United States
The first step is to see if there are any records available that will tell me more about Zula, I’m hoping that with a less common name such as Zula, that I will be able to narrow down the possibilities quickly. By searching records first, I will know what profile on any online tree is likely to be my ancestor. Hopefully, I can discover a maiden name, a birthplace, a spouse’s name, or parents’ names. 

After logging into FamilySearch, I click on the Search tab which will take me to this screen.

Basic FamilySearch Search Tips


In the entry from, I type the name Zula Offord (leaving the middle initial off).

For the birth, I expand the year to the range of 1865 – 1875.

Why would I do that when I have a birth year of 1869?

Don’t get stuck in the ‘this record says the birth is 1869, so I should type in 1869″ mind set. To increase your changes of finding your ancestors, it is better start with a broad year range to capture any record that is the right person with a slightly ‘wrong’ date.

If I have too many results returned, then I can narrow down the birth year range.

For the death, I key in the range of 1928 – 1930 and the place of Ohio, United States.

This range is smaller than the birth range because I am more certain of the death date. However, sometimes records are indexed incorrectly or the death records for one person do not all agree on the same date. Once again, it’s better to have a wide death date range than a specific year to ensure you capture all relevant records.

I’m quite certain Zula died in Ohio, so I add her death place. It’s possible that she died somewhere other than where she was buried (which is in Ohio). I’ll keep an open mind but I want to narrow the records to only Ohio death records at this time.

Now, I press the Search button to see what is available on FamilySearch.


Basic FamilySearch Search Tips


In this case, FamilySearch returns likely candidates for my search terms including:

  • 3 death records
  • 1 Find A Grave record
  • 1910 US Census (not shown)
  • 1920 US Census
  • Death record for possible spouse named John (not shown)
  • Death record for possible child named Grayson (not shown)

The possible spouse name of John and child named Grayson triggers a memory about this family and seems most likely fit. Upon further research, I find that John Offord is buried beside Zula in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. Other research does support Grayson as Zula’s son.

Hooray! These are my people!

I am confident this collection of facts pertains to the Zula Offord. From these records I learn:

  • Zula’s parents were Warren Devore and Sallie Ball
  • Her full birth and date dates, as well as places
  • The names of at least three children

For this blog post, I intentionally chose someone who was easy to find in the search results from the smallest set of facts. If your results page isn’t this simple, don’t be discouraged. There are other things you can try:

  • Vary how you spell Zula’s names.
  • Spend more time analyzing results if you don’t recognize Zula’s relatives
  • Narrow down your birth or death ranges if you have too many results

There are other possibilities as to why you are unable to find records quickly for your ancestor at among which include no records available for the time/place your researching, browse only records available online without a search function, or records are located on another website. There are many reasons you might not find your ancestor quickly. At that point, I would call in a Family History Consultant; they can help you!

In my next post, I will share what you can do once you discover a relative in a record on Family Search.
Does this help you get started? Leave a question in the comments below.
Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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